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Aging U.S. dams pose risk to thousands

David A. Lieb, Michael Casey and Michelle Minkoff
Associated Press

On a cold morning last March, Kenny Angel got a frantic knock on his door. Two workers from a utility company in northern Nebraska had come with a stark warning: Get out of your house.

Just a little over a quarter-mile upstream, the 92-year-old Spencer Dam was straining to contain the swollen, ice-covered Niobrara River after an unusually intense snow and rainstorm. The workers had tried but failed to force open the dam’s frozen wooden spillway gates. So, fearing the worst, they fled in their truck, stopping to warn Angel before driving away without him.

Minutes later, the dam came crashing down, unleashing a wave of water carrying ice chunks the size of cars. Angel’s home was wiped away; his body was never found.

“He had about a 5-minute notice, with no prior warning the day before,” said Scott Angel, one of Kenny’s brothers.

State inspectors had given the dam a “fair” rating less than a year earlier. Until it failed, it looked little different from thousands of others across the U.S. — and that could portend a problem.

The city of Atlanta made repairs to Reservoir No. 1, a 180M-gallon water supply and brought it back online in 2017 only to shut it down again after water leaks were noticed near businesses located beneath its dam.

A more than two-year investigation by the Associated Press has found scores of dams nationwide in even worse condition and in equally dangerous locations. They loom over homes, businesses, highways or entire communities that could face life-threatening floods if the dams don’t hold.

A review of federal data and reports obtained under state open records laws identified 1,688 high-hazard dams rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition as of last year in 44 states and Puerto Rico. The actual number is almost certainly higher: Some states declined to provide condition ratings for their dams, claiming exemptions to public record requests. Others simply haven’t rated all their dams due to lack of funding, staffing or authority to do so.

Out of 1,028 Michigan dams listed in the data, 19, or nearly 2%, were categorized as both high hazard and in unsatisfactory condition.

Deaths from dam failures have declined since a series of catastrophic collapses in the 1970s prompted the federal and state governments to step up their safety efforts. Yet about 1,000 dams have failed over the past four decades, killing 34 people, according to Stanford University’s National Performance of Dams Program.

Built for flood control, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, recreation or industrial waste storage, the nation’s dams are over a half-century old on average. Some are no longer adequate to handle the intense rainfall and floods of a changing climate. Yet they are being relied upon to protect more and more people as housing developments spring up nearby.

“There are thousands of people in this country that are living downstream from dams that are probably considered deficient given current safety standards,” said Mark Ogden, a former Ohio dam safety official who is now a technical specialist with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The association estimates it would take more than $70 billion to repair and modernize the nation’s more than 90,000 dams. But unlike much other infrastructure, most U.S. dams are privately owned. That makes it difficult for regulators to require improvements from operators who are unable or unwilling to pay the steep costs.

“Most people have no clue about the vulnerabilities when they live downstream from these private dams,” said Craig Fugate, a former administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “When they fail, they don’t fail with warning. They just fail, and suddenly you can find yourself in a situation where you have a wall of water and debris racing toward your house with very little time, if any, to get out.”

Hunter Croan launches his Jon boat from a dried up section of Lake Dunlap on Sept. 30 in Texas. Croan is one of many homeowners who were left high and dry, their lakeside docks now dry as the Guadalupe River retreated to its natural bed after the the center spill gate of the lake’s 91-year-old dam failed.

Beyond expectations

It’s unclear whether Angel, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran, declined to flee or simply ran out of time after workers with the Nebraska Public Power District warned him that water was overtopping the dam near Spencer, a town of fewer than 500 residents.

When last inspected in April 2018, Spencer Dam’s “fair” rating was accompanied by an ominous notation: “Deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

Tim Gokie, chief engineer of Nebraska’s dam safety program, said the warning was due to past water seepage the power utility addressed by installing a drain system. Ultimately, Gokie said, the rising Niobrara River simply overwhelmed the concrete and earthen dam, which was built in 1927 to generate hydroelectricity, not for flood control.

“The fact was that it was just an unprecedented situation,” Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker said. “It was beyond what everybody anticipated.”

Nebraska was among the states hardest hit by storms and floods this year that have caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damage to roads, dams, utilities and other infrastructure in 28 states, according to an AP analysis.

A National Climate Assessment released by the White House last year noted growing frequency and intensity of storms as the climate changes. That can push some dams beyond what they were designed to handle.

Even if kept in good condition, thousands of dams could be at risk because of extreme rainstorms, said Fugate, the former FEMA official.

“These are like ticking bombs just sitting there, waiting for the wrong conditions to occur to cause catastrophic failure,” he said.

The French Landing Dam in Wayne County is among 19 Michigan dam sites listed as being in unsatisfactory condition.

Michigan impact

The nation’s dams are categorized as high, significant or low hazard in the National Inventory of Dams database. High hazard means loss of human life is likely if a dam were to fail. A significant rating means no deaths are likely, although economic and environmental damage are possible.

There is no national standard for inspecting dams, leading to a patchwork of state regulations. Some states inspect high-hazard dams every year while others wait up to five years. Some states never inspect low-hazard dams – though even farm ponds can eventually pose a high hazard as housing developments encroach.

Dam conditions are supposed to be rated as unsatisfactory, poor, fair or satisfactory. But the ratings are subjective, varying by state and the interpretations of individual inspectors, and are not always publicly disclosed.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the U.S. government has cited national security grounds in refusing to include dams’ conditions in its inventory, which was updated most recently in 2018. But the AP was able to determine both condition and hazard ratings for more than 25,000 dams across the country through public records requests.

The tally includes some of the nation’s most well-known dams, such as Hoover Dam along the Colorado River, but mostly involves privately owned dams. Many are used for recreation.

The AP then examined inspection reports for hundreds of high-hazard dams in poor or unsatisfactory condition. Those reports cited a variety of problems: leaks that can indicate a dam is failing internally; unrepaired erosion from past instances of overtopping; holes from burrowing animals; tree growth that can destabilize earthen dams; and spillways too small to handle a large flood. Some dams were so overgrown with vegetation that they couldn’t be fully inspected.

Georgia led the nation with nearly 200 high-hazard dams in unsatisfactory or poor condition, according to the AP’s analysis.

Nineteen Michigan dams were categorized as both high hazard and in unsatisfactory condition. Those were:

Alcona Dam in Alcona County;

Au Train Dam in Alger County;

Boardman Dam in Grand Traverse County;

Bond Falls Dam and Victoria Diversion Dam in Ontonagon County;

Cascade Dam in Kent County;

Chalk Hill Dam in Menominee County

Cheboygan Dam in Cheboygan County;

Cooke Dam in Iosco County;

Edenville Dam in Gladwin County;

Four Mile Dam in Alpena County;

French Landing Dam in Wayne County;

Hodenpyl Dam in Manistee County;

Lower Dam No 3 in Marquette County;

Portage Plant Dam and Sturgis Dam in St. Joseph County;

Prickett Diversion Dam in Baraga County;

Secord Dam in Gladwin County;

Tippy Dam in Manistee County.

All of them were inspected within the past 10 years except for the Victoria Diversion Dam, which was last inspected in 1997, and the Portage Plant Dam, which was last inspected in 2002, according to the data.

One of the most common problems for aging dams are spillways incapable of handling an extreme rainfall event.

If water can’t escape quickly enough through spillways, it could flow over the top of a dam, which increases the probability of rapid erosion that can cause it to collapse.

In Huron Township, high water levels raised alarm among residents in May about the condition of the French Landing Dam. The township’s public safety department insisted that the dam was not in danger of failing.

This March 14, 2006, file photo, shows damage after a dam burst near Kilauea, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. An earthen wall of the Kaloko Reservoir collapsed during heavy rains and sent a wave of water and mud rushing down a hillside. Seven people were killed.

Demand on resources

In a 1982 report summarizing its nationwide dam assessment, the Corps of Engineers said most dam owners were unwilling to modify, repair or maintain the structures, and most states were unwilling to spend enough money for an effective dam safety program.

Since then, every state but Alabama has created a dam safety program.

But the Great Recession a decade ago forced many states to make widespread budget and personnel cuts. Since a low point in 2011, states’ total spending on dam safety has grown by about one-third to nearly $59 million in the 2019 fiscal year while staffing levels have risen by about one-fifth, according to data collected by the Corps of Engineers.

Michigan’s budget for dam safety in 2019 was $397,215.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says almost every state faces a serious need to pump additional money and manpower into dam safety programs.

“If you don’t have the staff to inspect a dam, or don’t have the authority to do that, you don’t know what the problems are,” said the association’s Ogden.

“If you are able to do the inspection but you can’t follow up, and you have dam owners who don’t have the resources to fix their dam, then ultimately you know what the problem is but you can’t get it addressed,” he added.

Until Angel’s death in Nebraska this year, the last fatal dam failure in the U.S. occurred on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 2006.

An earthen wall of the Kaloko Reservoir collapsed during heavy rains and sent a wave of water rushing down a hillside. Seven people, including a pregnant woman, were killed on Bruce Fehring’s property, including his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

Fehring, who wasn’t there at the time, got a phone call from a neighbor saying something terrible had happened. He was shocked by the scene.

“It took a while to register, and I went, ‘Oh my God, everything’s been washed away,’” Fehring recalled. “I mean, you have no idea the power of water (until) you see what it can do in a very short amount of time.”

Dam owner James Pflueger pleaded no contest to felony reckless endangerment and was sentenced to seven months of confinement and five years of probation. His property company pleaded no contest to seven counts of manslaughter. Prosecutors said Pflueger had filled in the dam’s spillway while attempting to make space for a waterfront development.

The victims’ families and those whose property was damaged, including actress Bette Midler, agreed to a $25 million civil settlement. Though categorized by the state as low hazard at the time it failed, Kaloko Reservoir is now listed as a high-hazard facility in poor condition . It remains largely unrepaired.

The Hargus Lake dam near Circleville, Ohio, is among the dams that are in poor or unsatisfactory condition and have a hazard rating of “high,” meaning there is likely to be a loss of life if the dam fails.